SAN LUIS OBISPO — For my wife, Julie, escaping Los Angeles means escaping her car. For me, there's never any greater escape than riding the rails. So instead of driving to San Luis Obispo for an art show we had been planning to attend, we hopped Amtrak's Coast Starlight. At five hours, the train ride is a bit longer than driving. And it costs more. But we both craved a break from Southern California freeways.
That's just what we got. By the time we arrived home the next evening at 9, we felt as if we had been treated to a mini-European-style vacation. We dined aboard a first-class train graced with splendid vistas. We sauntered for hours along historic streets lined with bookshops and galleries. And we took refuge from the hot sun in the town's cool and pleasingly musty mission where choral music filled the air.
Our excursion, sans auto, started the moment we strolled under Los Angeles Union Station's magnificent Art Deco arches and massive Mission-style beams. We were eager to board, having heard from friends that Amtrak has greatly improved its service in recent months. But arriving a full hour before our 9:30 a.m. departure was a bit too eager: Boarding didn't begin until 10 minutes before the train left the station.
The wait was worth it. Amtrak has put a fleet of gleaming new double-decked cars on its daily Los Angeles to Seattle run, including spiffy dining and sleeping cars and a refurbished 1950s first-class lounge. Amtrak's summer season is immensely popular and, by the time we decided to make the trip, all the coach cars were sold out. Determined to go anyway, we splurged on a private sleeping compartment that converts to a roomy, quiet sitting room by day.
We paid a stiff price for our spontaneity: A round-trip coach ticket to San Luis Obispo costs $50 per person; add to that an additional $30 or so each for two meals, including wine and tip. That's just under half the price of our $168 tickets, which included meals, endless snacks, soft drinks and champagne.
We noticed that the coach seats are more than adequate, but our cozy little cabin was a tremendous treat: crisp, clean and luxurious. A small linen-covered table along the window sported a vase of fresh flowers. A comfortable sofa ran the length of the cabin. Across from it was an easy chair, sink, mirror and a tiny enclosed bathroom.
As our train pulled out precisely on time, Julie arranged herself on the couch for a nap. I intended to read. Instead, after we passed the pretty Glendale station, I dreamily watched the parade of San Fernando Valley warehouses and burger joints transform into Ventura County farmland, then citrus groves and, at last, the Pacific Ocean. All the while, I sipped coffee and nibbled on fresh fruit and pastry brought to our cabin by the porter.
Once past Santa Barbara, we ventured into the lounge car before lunch. There we found the Columbia Gorge Model Railroad Club, decked out in engineer caps and engrossed in a rowdy game of poker. We timed our lunch to coincide with some of the most spectacular railroad scenery in the country. For more than 100 miles, the train hugs the coast, chugging through wild, unspoiled terrain mostly inaccessible by car. The morning fog was clearing. A wave of giggles rolled through the diner as our train raced past a nudist beach.
If the view outside our window was wild, inside civilization reigned. Soon we were feasting on salads, chicken pot pie and ice cream sundaes. The couple sharing our booth was headed to San Francisco and we spent a long, drawn out lunch engaged in pleasant small talk while collectively gasping at the sensational view.
Stuffed and sleepy from so much relaxation, we were ready for a nap by the time the train pulled into San Luis Obispo a little past 2:30. Our host, Georgia Adrian, whisked us from the station to her quaint B&B, the Heritage Inn. It was the only time on the trip that we stepped into a car. The Heritage (room rates $85 to $120) is a meticulously restored Craftsman with Victorian-era antiques. Three of the seven rooms have private baths. Located an easy 10-minute walk from the center of town, our inn did have a few drawbacks. Sitting just across California 101, which cuts through the western edge of town, it is surrounded by motels and fast-food joints.
Another good choice for a walking weekend is the Garden Street Inn, situated smack in downtown. Restored in 1990, this large 19th century Italianate B&B feels more like a small, elegant hotel with its high ceilings, library and broad staircase leading up to a dozen rooms and suites ($90 to $160).
From our inn, we strolled leisurely into town and along tree-lined Monterey Street toward Mission Plaza, which was bustling with musicians and sightseers. Crossing San Luis Creek, which runs along the plaza, we made our way to a small arcade. There, Julie's sister, Jennifer Markes, was giving a show of her paintings at one of the several art galleries in town.